Showdown in Paris


Paris beckons this weekend and my mind drifts back to an unforgettable contest of yesteryear…

It’s March 1992. England had won convincingly away in Murrayfield and destroyed the Irish at Twickenham. The war of words from the French had started immediately – talk of revenge for their 1991 World Cup quarter final defeat played out in that Colosseum of a stadium, the ‘Parc de Princes’. To remind everyone, this was a match of unbelievable drama and ferocity. Characterised by an early fistfight, Micky Skinner’s decimating tackle of Marc Cecillon and a dramatic late match-winning try from Will Carling, it was hard to bear for Les Bleus, hence the promise of payback this time. Brian Moore had been in ‘wind up’ mode all week in the press, and as we sped through the streets of Paris to our possible destiny, the foreboding nature of the grim-faced police escort seemed a premonition for what was to come.

Fast forward to the scene outside the changing room 10 minutes before kick off, as we were ready to go up into the awaiting cauldron of noise. The French team were lined up alongside us bathed in sweat, grease and chewing furiously (garlic?), intimidating us just by their proximity and aggressive body language. Cue further intervention by Brian Moore who promised them, us and himself that there would be all hell to pay out there. He was right and in the first five minutes they took us apart in wave after wave of irresistible attacks, in sharp contrast to the frenetic approach of this current French side. I came off my wing to deliver what was easily my best International tackle only to see them recycle and score in the other corner; they were initially unstoppable. Until they lost their minds and had a player sent off, then another. We were operating at the limit of our ability but kept our heads. The Final score was 34-13 to England, a record win, and a truly memorable way to signal a second consecutive Grand Slam in the making.

24 years on the pressure will be the same. All England expects the Red Rose to triumph over an impossibly poor French team next weekend… is it so certain?

Let us first pay tribute to a very decent upturn in quality for the fourth weekend of the Championship. Ireland did what was expected against Italy with a performance of pace and skill, and the Azzurri seemed very disheartened. Hard to imagine that they were one drop goal away from beating the French in the opening match. Meantime, Scotland finally finished the job of winning a tight game, something they could have done half a dozen times in the last 12 months. Stuart Hogg really does have the stardust about him and has banished those memories of a very loose last couple of minutes against Australia in the RWC. He of all people should celebrate this most overdue of results which could herald a return of the Scots to the top table – nothing but good news for the Championship.

At Twickenham I was as bewildered as anyone to see the apparent lethargy of the Welsh in the first half. 19 missed tackles? I think that the truth is somewhere in between, as England played with wit and pace, constantly attacking the left side of the field, targeting Cuthbert and a weak Welsh blindside defence. Well spotted the England coaching staff. Two better passing decisions by Brown and Ford and England would have been 30 points ahead! Wales had no answers and the final score hugely flattered them. I think we all know that their World Cup win over England was more self-destruct by the hosts than anything else – when judging their subsequent performances against Australia, SA, Ireland, France and now England. In addition, they knew they had lucked out, and psychologically this match was set up perfectly for a very focussed England team who are now using the pain of loss to drive their performances. Compare the pace and athleticism and sheer drive and there was only one team on the field for a while. Luckily they had enough credit in the bank to survive a late Welsh, World Cup-like onslaught, and I continue to wonder why we changed the midfield with 20 minutes to go. All very well to say Tuilagi put in a saving tackle on North – a narrow defence caused the problems all of a sudden after an hour of fruitless effort by Wales. However, the key point we need to take away is that this England team is getting better and better with every match.

Can the French possibly revive their season with an unlikely win? 19 changes cumulatively so far, no doubt more to come after a stunningly shapeless display against the Scots. Many of the fears about Noves are being surfaced – random selection, a faded strategy and all made worse by a domestic league not throwing up obvious candidates to lead a revival. Having said all that, a win next Saturday evening would quell the doubters and give the French team Hero status, not least in the Celtic eyes who have traditionally denied England their Grand Slams and Championships over the last 20 years. I just cannot see where it will come from if England turn up with anything like their A game.

Anyway, nothing is taken for granted and this England squad have suffered too many setbacks for that to happen.They will hit some points of pressure and that is when Eddie Jones’ obvious influence will play a part.His experience will help him to prepare his galaxy of talent for those moments when only your inner self belief as individuals and as a team carries you through.We can all be afforded a wry and frustrated smile when not long ago it was thought that we could do without that vital quality and win key matches against the world’s best.

So, let us to Paris, in the springtime and for a Grand Slam. Nothing else matters for the moment in our Rugby world.

THOUGHT OF THE WEEK

  • The Scrummage has become a farce.Take your pick from the following
  • Ball goes into the second row every time
  • A penalty occurs at almost every scrum, which either collapses, erupts upwards,wheels or goes off at an angle.
  • No one understands the scrum laws
  • A scrum lasts at least two minutes on average and now accounts for 15% of the game .Boring
  • Coaches target the scrum as a way to generate penalties not to restart the game.
  • Players try to con the referee at every turn.

It’s a bore, a yawn and a blight on the game.

Need I go on? World Rugby needs to step in and simplify the laws, without delay. Create a committee of current players, coaches,referees and self administer the change.Then we have the added bonus of not having to listen to Brian Moore and David Flatman talking about it all match on the television.